My life usually peters along at its usual predictable pace, until all of a sudden it hits me.
My motivation drops to zilch and I’m stuck in a bottomless pit, wondering if I will ever find my way out.
It’s a slump. I’ve been here before, hundreds of times.
I resign myself to the feelings of hopelessness and blah. I consider it my penance for being happy for slightly longer than I am accustomed to.
What is a slump?
It’s a decidedly pervasive and all-consuming lack of motivation and joy which lasts for an indefinite period of time. It’s just a low-level dullness that colors the world a kind of grey.
At some point or another, each of us will cross paths with a slump. It’s important to have a set of tools you can rely on to help pull yourself up and out of it.
Where do slumps come from?
When you are in a slump, periods of motivation are fleeting, that is if they happen at all.
What motivates us is the subject of much debate and has been for a long time. It’s not as simple as pointing to one part of the brain and saying, “Yes, motivation is right here.” That’s because there are 15 brain structures that deal directly with motivation.
One of the brain’s largest brokers of motivation is dopamine. Dopamine has a lot of responsibleness, from helping to control the brains reward and pleasure centers, to assisting in the mediation of our response to negative stimuli—it’s an exceptionally busy neurotransmitter.
Dopamine carries chemical signals to other parts of the brain using various pathways, eight of them to be precise. Dopamine works differently depending on which pathway it takes.
If dopamine is dispatched to the reward centers of the brain—the striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex—it has a positive effect on our motivation. Individuals who are considered ‘go-getters’ have high levels of dopamine in these areas.
If dopamine takes the trip to our risk management and emotion processing centers of the brain—anterior insula—we end up less motivated and more reserved. The brain will seek out the path of least resistance.
“Low levels of dopamine make people and other animals less likely to work for things, so it has more to do with motivation and cost/benefit analyses than pleasure itself.”—Prof. John Salamone
Low motivation causes us to skew our goals towards risk management instead of reward. For example, if you’re given a choice between making more money or taking a slightly easier path and making less money, you’d choose the easier path even if that meant making less money.
According to Professor Hugo Kehr, there are three components of motivation that must be present in order for us to feel highly motivated:
- Conscious objectives and desires: For instance, the desire to want to move up in a company.
- Unconscious and implicit motives: Like the desire to have power, influence, or engage in interpersonal relationships.
- Skills and capabilities: This is what you feel like you bring to the table and your confidence in those abilities.
If any of these components are lacking, our motivation suffers.
You have a limited supply of motivation and will power—will power is what you use when motivation simply isn’t enough. The more strenuous the task the more motivation and will power we use. When these reserves run low it can be difficult to even start a task—let alone complete one.
If you’ve ever failed to complete a task, you know that it feels really cruddy. You feel like you aren’t good enough or that you’re missing something that everyone else clearly has. These negative emotions build on themselves and further zap motivation. No matter where negative thoughts begin, they can spillover into every other part of your life.
When there is a discord between what motivates you and the current trajectory of your life, that’s when slumps can happen.
You might think that getting out of a slump is impossible but there are steps you can take to help speed up the process of recovery.
How to get out of your slump
When did the slump begin?
When you are in a slump its important to identify when and where you have ups and downs. Isolating your moods will help you see patterns that you might not otherwise notice. Remember that negative emotions aren’t always a bad thing, they are essential to our well-being.
If, however, you find that the majority of your negative emotions happen at work, that’s your brain telling you that something isn’t right. If you notice that even the simplest of work tasks end up putting you in a bad mental place, chances are your job might no longer be aligned with your personal or professional motivations.
The brain usually has intention behind every task, there is a purpose for the negative message you are receiving and decoding that will help you on your march out of Slumpsville.
Create incentive and rewards
Feeling internally motivated to complete a task increases your sense of ownership. The more personally connected to a task you feel, the better you will do.
Start by reexamining what matters the most to you. Are you busy for the sake of being busy or are your daily tasks purposeful? Do they provide you with a reward that matches or exceeds the energy you put into them? If what you are busying yourself with doesn’t align with your core values, consider removing it from your life.
Identify a goal that connects with what internally motivates you. This could be anything from reading a book you’ve always longed to read, to taking a class that furthers your professional development. Remember to hold yourself accountable. You can do this by writing down how you intend to accomplish the goal. Writing down your commitment increases your likelihood of following through.
Flip your perspective
Focusing too intently on failure or ‘what might have been’ increases feelings of guilt and shame. These feelings distract us from goals and decrease motivation. Instead, change your perspective. Find skills and attributes that you feel good about and take pride in them.
If you know you’re not the best at being hyper detailed, but you are great at seeing a ton of perspectives and the larger picture, acknowledge this! Pride increases problem-solving abilities and boosts confidence—which in turn helps you get your motivation back. Yay!
Don’t overcomplicate it
Sometimes the most simple solution is the right one. Slumps are so often caused by a feeling of a loss of self. You can find yourself again, just don’t make it harder than it needs to be. I know I’ve said this often but seriously, write shit down.
Write down what you want to accomplish, write down what is standing in your way, just write about you, uninterrupted. If the idea of doing that sends chills down your spine, try this exercise:
Take a pen and place it on a piece of paper and write without removing the tip of the pen from the paper for five-ten minutes. Don’t stop to re-read it, don’t question your thoughts, just write down your stream of consciousness.
Writing down your stream of consciousness is a great way to find out what’s really on your mind and helps put feelings into perspective.
This past summer I was in a slump of fairly epic proportions. There was nothing anyone could say or do to convince me that I had taken the right path, that I was doing the right thing. I only focused on everything that I had done wrong, instead of what I had done right.
I left a company that felt toxic to me, I graduated graduate school, and I actually could legitimately say I was a writer.
From authors, to sports heroes, to Greek philosophers—slumps can happen to anyone at anytime. Finding your way out is about flipping the dynamic of your life. Find what is good and cling to it with all of your might. Be persistent, have courage, and try some of the tips listed above. You will find your way out of the slump.